Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
October 23, 2020
Every moment is an opportunity to learn and to grow. No matter how much we think we know, there is always room for growth. One way to grow is to look at our holy texts in a new light. What changes as our lives change, as our perspectives change?
Pirkei Avot 1:2
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:
Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service (or prayer), and the practice of acts of piety.
When I hear those words, I am immediately transported. In my shul growing up, Congregation Beth Shalom in Dunwoody, GA, we sang that every week as the Torah worked its way around the room. At times it drove me crazy. Why pick a slow melody, don’t we want people to move along, get to the sacred moment of hearing the Torah? Yet as I found myself on this side of the bimah, I see that the conversations are also holy!
Pirkei Avot has numerous versions of the world stands upon three things. Each rabbi had their own version of what Torah could be boiled down to, their own bumper sticker slogans. Yet Torah rarely can be shortened that much. I know my Torah, my Judaism, my faith is far more nuanced. Sometimes it feels I need to write a dissertation to share what I believe!
Yet returning to these few words, there is great meaning. The world stands upon Torah, prayer, and doing the right thing, treating others well. If we were discussing in hevruta or in a class, we might explore why that order? Why those three things?
Here I will simply say that as Jews, Torah comes first. Torah is our connection to God, to Israel, to one another. Torah helps us organize our lives, share our love, organize our choices. Avodah, the service in the Temple or the service of the heart, reminds us that we are not alone. In a desperately lonely world, it is vital for us to connect to that which is greater than ourselves. Finally, the last words seem self-explanatory yet aren’t! Shouldn’t we all strive to treat one another well, to do the right thing, to go above and beyond for the wellbeing of one another? Gemilut Hasadim is not totally natural. We can easily become focused upon ourselves. Gemilut Hasadim finished the transition from looking inward to looking outward. It teaches us that we are responsible for our community, for the world around us, for more than only ourselves. Let us live that way! Shabbat Shalom!